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How travel apps make our travels smart (and drive us insane)

This weekend I’m leaving for Stockholm. Before I go, I open Citymapper to get me from the office to the airport. Just before arriving at the train station, I glance at the NS app, to see if I have to top up my ov-chipcard. At the airport I use Find My Friends to see where my friend David is hanging out so I don’t have to call him.

The official Schiphol app sends us a notification telling us when to leave for the gate. Twisting my arm in an awkward way over a scanner means I’m checked in using KLM’s app on my Apple Watch. On the plane I save the address of where I’ll be staying using Google Maps’ ‘Save for Offline Use’ feature. Better to do that now while on wifi because I didn’t bother to get a data plan for only three days.

At the airport, my friend is waiting for me. It’ll be about an hour’s drive to his place. He knows this area by heart and even though he tends to care little about the speed limit, I feel safe. Within minutes, I fall asleep in the passenger seat.

Mediators of information
That’s about ten different apps I use during a single trip. Not even mentioning the million other things I must have been doing with my phone on the go.

This ‘appification’ of travel is making our journeys smarter, more personal and more fun. Yet if we’re not careful, it’s going to drive us insane.

This is the reality in which our phones are the center of all information we consume. Dozens of apps answer our questions, tell us where we need to go and how to get there. Designers and marketeers compete for our attention. Offering the most reliable, useful and satisfying products. To make things worse, chances are they all propose different routes, using different metrics and wanting something else in return. In the process, we are becoming skilled mediators of information to cope with this. Picking and choosing our way through a sprawling landscape of visual information.

And you know what, in this reality, the information is not to blame for our mistakes but we ourselves are! ‘You used Apple Maps in Amsterdam!?’ Ehm. Maybe. You confess to have used the standard maps app that came with your new iPhone. ‘Their data is terrible! Why didn’t you just use Google Maps? You could have been here an hour ago!’

Your own personal assistant
‘How do we get to where we want to be?’ used to be the most important question during our journey. Now the question is becoming: ‘Who do I trust to tell me where to go?’ Do I listen to the lady at the information desk who sounds like she means it, but that I don’t quite understand . . . ? Or do I listen to this app on my phone? If we don’t pay attention, we’re lost before we even had the chance to get lost.

So how do we find out who to trust? And as much as this is about the future, it’s not a new question. Even more so, it’s been the central question in our work for 30 years now. You trust the signs at the airport in New York because you remember them from Amsterdam. You trust the arrow on your screen because its the same arrow as everywhere around you. Trust isn’t about features. It’s about consistency, recognizability and reliability. Even though not every bit of information is perfect, it feels right.

Information isn’t exclusive anymore. We’re looking for the right information. Right for the occasion and even more: right for me.

Take me home!
The Swedes have a word for it: ‘Lagom.’ It means as much as: ‘Just right.’ Not too little and not too much. You can use it in any type of situation to express a sense of balance. How much honey would you like in your tea? Lagom. Just the right amount.

Look at airports: Ten years ago you’d just ‘follow the signs’. But in this reality, information is a commodity. It’s not about having information anymore. When information is a commodity, it’s about the right information. At the right place. At the right time.
Soon your personal assistant will tell you exactly where to go next before you even have the chance to decide for yourself.

In a digital landscape that is rapidly expanding, manifesting itself in more areas of our daily commute and demanding more of our time, striking a balance will be what matters. Just the right amount of information, at the right time, at the right moment. We’re looking towards a future in which you tell your digital assistent: ‘Get me a ride home and wake me up when I arrive.’

Photo Copyright: Illustration by Dion Soethoudt